The U.S. energy crisis of the 1970s had a lasting impact. Oil supplies became a critical political issue. Environmentalism reached new heights. Smaller, more fuel-efficient cars were produced. The search for alternative fuels intensified.
Out of this crisis, innovation was born.
In 1974, feeling the effects of higher power bills on his farm in Grinnell, Iowa, Claude Aherns began looking for a more energy-efficient way to water his cattle. Like most farmers of the time, he used traditional metal tanks heated with electricity to keep water from freezing in the winter.
Aherns, who also owned Miracle Recreation, a playground equipment-manufacturing company, purchased the patent on an insulated water closure device for ponds and adapted the concept for livestock watering. He established Miraco Livestock Water Systems and began producing the industry’s first energy-free, insulated poly waterers.
“It was a totally new concept at the time,” said Mike Witt, Miraco CEO, who is married to Aherns’ granddaughter, Susan. “Claude already had the manufacturing ability, so he started making waterers, too, and marketed them along with his playground equipment.”
The two companies eventually separated but remained in the Aherns family. Miraco stayed in Grinnell, while Miracle Recreation moved to Monett, Misssouri. The first Miraco product, a MiraFount 3320, is still in the company’s catalog, which now includes some 40 waterers in different sizes and styles to meet the needs of varying farm operations.
“There’s such a diverse clientele in the ag industry out there, and each farm has a little bit different application or different size they might use,” Witt said. “Whether you have one head or 100 head, we can accommodate those needs.”
No matter what type or size of waterer, Miraco products are all made with the same sturdy, energy-efficient design using a “Roto-Mold” system. This process involves a heated hollow mold that is filled with powdered polyethylene resin and then rotated continually during the heating and cooling phases. The poly material is impact-resistant and withstands rusting, deterioration and general wear and tear. The tanks are double-walled and filled with urethane foam insulation.
Think of it as a Thermos or Yeti cooler for livestock, explained Miraco Vice President Denny Durr, who’s been with the company 32 years.
“Yeti is only a few years old, but we’ve been doing this for 45 years,” Durr said. “Like their coolers, the key to our waterers is that they are very well insulated and have the durability of poly construction. These things are built to last.”
To be “energy-free,” the waterers tap into geothermal heat through a tube inserted in the ground under the tank, keeping lines thawed in the winter. Water flows into the tank at ground temperature, which means it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Water can be pumped from a well, pulled from a stream or pond, or supplied by a municipal water source.
“It’s a simple concept,” said Brent Wells, Miraco territorial manager, also a 32-year employee. “Water comes into the unit, the animals drink it, displace the water and more water comes in. Water turnover is the key. That’s what keeps this thing going.”
After the success of the first MiraFount model, Miraco patented another hydration innovation—waterers with rollaway ball closures. The tank openings stay covered until cattle put pressure on the float and move it out of their way to drink.
Afterwards, the ball returns to the opening to keep the water inside the tank warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The concept is working well on Steve Stone’s beef farm in Galena, Missouri., where he relies on automatic ball waterers in his rotational grazing system. In 2006, he installed 11 MiraFount four-hole waterers from Ozark MFA Agri Services to provide a fresh, clean water source for his cattle in each paddock.
“Before, when we just had ponds here and there, we had trouble getting water for the cattle any time we had a drought situation,” Stone said. “And to do the grazing system, you just about had to have them. We didn’t have enough ponds. The other added benefit is never having to break ice.”
While Miraco waterers are now marketed through dealers such as MFA and its affiliates, the first ones were sold the old-fashioned way—by door-to-door salesmen.
“They went farm to farm selling waterers directly to producers,” Witt said. “It was a hard sell at first. This was something totally different, and farmers had to be convinced to try something that was pretty expensive at the time. It was a slow start, but they stuck with it, and our business has grown tremendously.”
Miraco’s biggest market remains in the Midwest, Witt said, but the company now sells waterers all over North America and overseas, with international sales making up 10 to 15 percent of the business. Some 15,000 units are turned out each year by the factory’s 50 employees.
“We’re a small company, very ag-oriented,” Witt said. “Many of our employees have farm backgrounds, so they understand the needs of our customers and apply that thinking on the job. We have very little employee turnover because we maintain a low-stress environment here and treat everybody like family. Even our temporary employees have good longevity.”
For several years, Miraco exclusively manufactured ball waterers along with the original models but kept experimenting with product design. Responding to customer requests, the company began offering open-top waterers in its BigSpring and LilSpring lines. They are equipped with a submersible heater to keep water from freezing. Even though they require power, these units are considered “energy efficient” waterers because they have the same double-wall poly construction and foam insulation as MiraFounts.
“Some people wanted an open water design, and some wanted the ball design,” Witt said. “So we decided to offer both.”
Miraco no longer has an exclusive patent on its energy-free waterer, but Wells said customer service, longevity and consistent quality help distinguish the 44-year-old company from the competition.
“We’ve had a lot of companies follow suit, but we’re the originators, the pioneers,” he said. “We’ve figured out a lot of the things other companies may be struggling with, and we focus on waterers. That’s all we do.”
Another advantage for Miraco, Durr said, is that the company has adapted to changes in agriculture through the years. For example, as dairies expanded, farmers needed larger waterers to provide more lineal drinking space per cow. In response, Miraco now makes the biggest poly waterer on the market—a 14-foot model used mainly at larger dairies and feedlots. On the flip side, the company has also seen growing demand for smaller waterers by goat producers, horse owners, organic operations and hobby farmers who have a few head of livestock.
As the industry continues to evolve, diversity and flexibility will drive Miraco’s offerings in the future, Witt said.
“When new ideas and new issues come along, we’ll work to solve those needs for our customers, but we don’t plan on deviating from making waterers,” Witt said. “It’s a niche market, but as long as it’s working, we’re going to continue.”
Photos and story courtesy of Today’s Farmer, MFA Incorporated.